Journal Opinion April 11, 2012
Author greets speaker Mark Greenberg (left) prior to his April 18th presentation on "Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs" for the Bradford Historical Society. His appearance before an enthusiastic audience was underwritten by the Vermont Humanities Council. (Photo: Janice Neubauer)
“After the supper came the dance. There was no music save the fiddles…but was that not enough? Have ever feet tapped more merrily than to a rollicking scrape of some inspired old wool-thatched fiddler, swaying to his own strains and called out the figures in clear, rich tones that harmonized with his wild dance measure as only he could do.”
This is a 19th century description of what has been called kitchen junkets, kitchen tunks, tonks, rackets or scrapes. It is dancing in the kitchen. This column describes this New England bit of homegrown fun along with the often accompanying activity of singing in the parlor.
On Wednesday, April 18, musician-educator Mark Greenberg presented the illustrated program “Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Song” at the Bradford Academy Auditorium to an audience of about 60. The program was sponsored by the Bradford Historical Society with a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council. Greenberg currently teaches courses in American music at UVM and is a resident of Montpelier. He has researched the roots of Vermont music and has recorded this music in both CD and DVD presentations.
Beginning after chores were done, these kitchen dances were held in conjunction with a barn raising, corn roast or husking bee or just as a break from the isolation of a long winter. When one was planned, word went out about the neighborhood, passed from home to home. Most neighborhoods had at least one fiddler, although “scraping” was an appropriate description of his talents in some cases.
This was an opportunity for neighbors to get together and share the most recent gossip or commiserate about the weather. These family-centered events were held in the “great kitchen” of local farmhouses, often the largest room in the dwelling. When all the furniture, except the stove and sink was removed, an intimate dance floor became available. Sometimes adjacent rooms were also used.
The short story M’Randy Ann’s Romance by Helen M. Winslow that appeared in an 1894 edition of The New England Magazine includes a description of a northern Vermont kitchen junket: “Old Dave Burrows sat in state on the only chair in the room, scraping wildly on a fiddle with one string broken. Up and down the uneven floor a dozen young folks were going vigorously though the mazy evolutions of the Virginia Reel, while a half-dozen more huddled in the doorway that led to the great ‘square room’ or parlor as the next generation termed it, applauding the most graceful and deriding the least graceful of the dancers.”
The description goes on: “At ten o’clock the kitchen table was pulled out and loaded with doughnuts, apple sauce, pie, cheese and cider. This was pleasant intermission in the evening’s exercises, after which the dancing would go on with renewed vigor.” The figures included traditional contras, quadrilles and square dances, taken from English, Scottish and French traditional dances. They were so familiar to most participants that the caller only had to get them started and they could continue with just the music and whatever gusto they could muster.
There were, of course, variations. Sometimes the fiddler’s chair was on a board covering the sink to make extra room. A harmonica player or other musician might provide accompaniment. At times there was liquor or hard cider. Often a supper followed the evening of dancing.
Sometimes dancing lasted until well after midnight. Card games and group singing could be held in conjunction with the party. In some neighborhoods, the junkets rotated from house to house, whereas in others, the largest farm kitchen was used.
These frolics were not looked upon with favor by some. In the 1890s, the New Hampshire Superintendent of Public Instruction warned against students attending dances including kitchen junkets. “Such pupils are wholly unfitted to do substantial school work. For two or three days after these nightly revelings, their minds are unsettled, stupid and dull.”
In the early 1980’s my U.S. History students interviewed area elders about life in the period from 1900-1930. Many spoke, with fond memories, of kitchen junkets they had attended in their youth. I followed up recently with several additional interviews. Among the comments were: “I learned to dance there.” and “They were lots of fun, dancing and visiting.” Others mentioned “plenty of liquor” and “They had the best hard cider.”
One man said that his favorite song “to stamp the old feet to” was the “Soldier’s Joy.” Another, who lived in northern Bradford, told me that in his youth he had a horse-drawn sleigh and at the end of a very long evening of dancing, he could snuggle down under a lap robe and the horse knew the way home to the warm barn.